Close quarters, a crush of work, and inconsistent — at best — adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols.

This holiday season, that’s the reality for workers in the region’s warehouses and distribution centers responsible for moving an unprecedented volume of merchandise bought online at a time when in-person shopping carries risks. The overtime that workload requires is a boon to those financially struggling during the pandemic, noted Richard Hooker Jr., the top union official with Teamsters Local 623, which represents UPS workers in Philadelphia. Earning the extra pay, though, means taking health risks during a pandemic.

“Some of them, even if they are sick or even if they do have COVID, they’re willing to take that chance, just so they can get more money so they can help provide for their families,” he said.

More than 300 postal workers in the Philadelphia region and Southern New Jersey have tested positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of the month, according to representatives from the American Postal Workers Union.

“We have had more positives and more forced quarantines [recently] than we had in the first three months when this all exploded,” said Frank Bollinger, business administrator for the union’s South Jersey area local.

It’s the most stressful time of the year

At the UPS Philadelphia Air Hub, adjacent to the Philadelphia International Airport, the weeks before Christmas are always intense. The stress is offset by the overtime, particularly for part-timers, who start at $14.50/hour.

This year, though, it is among the distribution centers for private carriers and the U.S. Postal Service nationwide that in recent weeks have moved an estimated 75 million to 80 million packages a day, said Shatish Jindel, president of ShipMatrix, a shipping data tracking company and industry consultant. Amazon alone is handling 14 million packages daily.

“They’re dealing with a 40% or 50% increase over what they were doing this time last year,” Jindel said of the industry, “a combination of holidays and also COVID.”

Starting in October, UPS hired temporary workers to help handle the volume. That means that it’s more crowded on the floor. The “ramp,” where workers load and unload planes, has especially seen more COVID-19 cases, union officials say. During shifts on the ramp, some have to ride in crew vans, where it’s hard to socially distance. Inside the facility, mask-wearing has improved, but workers can’t always maintain distance, said Kim Mack-Thomas, who is on a worker safety team.

Ryan Boyd, a part-time equipment operator who works on the ramp, remembered a conversation with a colleague after she found out her mother and grandmother, with whom she lives, tested positive. The worker had tested negative, but Boyd was concerned she’d eventually become positive and infect others.

A 44-year-old father to three young children, he pleaded with her to quarantine, which she did. But after a week, she returned to work. She didn’t have enough sick time to cover her quarantine and couldn’t afford to go without pay for any longer.

She did apply for emergency COVID pay, available for 10 days to workers who test positive or must quarantine, but it can take weeks to receive the money, Boyd said. Mack-Thomas, 46, applied for it when she quarantined after two people on her team tested positive. It took three weeks for the money to come, she said.

And if you take COVID pay, you miss out on peak season overtime pay, Hooker said.

“Everyone wants to work peak,” Boyd said, “but if we contract COVID, we can’t do that.”

Inconsistent protections, sparse information

At Postal Service processing facilities, workers reliably wear masks, Bollinger said, but enforcement varies at local offices, where employees often work in close quarters. He has received many reports of mail carriers in Pennsville walking around the building not wearing masks, though a Postal Service spokesperson said masks are required when social distancing isn’t possible. He’s also heard complaints about supervisors not allowing symptomatic employees to go home. In Vineland, he said, an employee was not permitted to leave work despite exhibiting symptoms for COVID-19.

“They were not letting the employee go home until I got in touch with the superiors,” he said.

A similar situation arose in Pennsville, he said.

Two employees with symptoms had to work while waiting for the results of their tests, which were positive for COVID-19, he said.

The Postal Service, which provides union leaders with daily COVID-19 case reports, has cited virus-related worker shortages as a reason behind the disastrous drop in reliability this season.

Amazon hired 100,000 seasonal workers in the United States and Canada this year, the company said, and has committed to making its warehouses and distribution centers as safe as possible. It has supplied masks, gloves, thermal cameras, thermometers, and disinfectant spraying in buildings, and where possible has taken steps to separate workers.

A worker assigned to a loading area at an Amazon fulfillment center in New Jersey praised some of the company’s actions but did not want to be named for fear of reprisal.

That facility even has staff walking through work areas repeating, “Six feet! Six feet! Mask on!”

In the loading area, though, those calls are less frequent, said the worker, who’s been putting in 55 hour weeks, noting that it’s just not possible to do the work while remaining socially distanced.

Amazon has COVID-19 testing at its facilities, the worker said, and offers two weeks paid leave for quarantining. Workers receive texts when someone tests positive, but don’t get details about which department or shift they were working.

UPS workers likewise receive little information. The company tells the union if someone has tested positive in a certain department, but won’t say what shift they worked, Hooker said. As of Friday, there were 130 cases of COVID among the 4,500 workers in two Philadelphia UPS facilities.

UPS spokesperson Matthew O’Connor said the company does inform personnel if someone they worked closely with tested positive for the virus, without identifying the person. Hooker and Boyd say this has not happened consistently.

Workers rely on the union and word-of-mouth to figure out if they might have been exposed to someone who tested positive, those interviewed said.

“You could be working next to somebody that had it and you don’t even know,” Hooker said.

FedEx and Amazon are not unionized.

Shaky incentives

Overtime isn’t the only way companies keep workers motivated. Amazon shares videos from Cameo, a social media site that allows video interactions with celebrities, of famous names thanking staff for hard work. Among those who have contributed are NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, country star LeAnn Rimes, and Kristian Nairn, who played Hodor on Game of Thrones.

But Amazon has not resumed its springtime hazard pay, an omission that has spurred talk of unionizing.

“Paychecks were really good then, and now that this is starting to surge again, it’s worse than it was back then,” the New Jersey fulfillment center worker said. “They’ve been completely unwilling to bring that back.”

Amazon noted that on top of its $15-an-hour minimum wage, it has offered holiday pay incentives, with more than $750 million in additional pay for frontline hourly workers this quarter, and has spent $2.5 billion in bonuses and incentives this year.

UPS workers, too, have had calls for hazard pay rebuffed.

Ultimately, Hooker said, the pandemic has left workers feeling pressured year-round.

“Put it like this, they’ve been working peak season since March,” he said. “No hazard pay. No appreciation.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.